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At least 45 people were crushed to death on the outskirts of Mumbai when an unauthorised partly-built apartment block collapsed, officials said Friday, highlighting the dangers of India's illegal housing boom.
The seven-storey building collapsed on Thursday evening into a mangled heap of steel and concrete about eight metres (26 feet) high that rescuers and local residents struggled to cut through, officials said.
Rescue efforts continued into Friday, with diggers and steel cutters employed to reach victims who were carried away on makeshift stretchers. Limbs protruding from the wreckage were a grisly sight in some areas.
As emergency workers combed the rubble for survivors in front of a huge crowd of onlookers, two toddlers were pulled out alive late Thursday to cries of "Allahu akbar" (God is greater) and cheers and clapping, an AFP photographer at the scene said.
"The latest toll is 45 dead and 69 injured," said Sandeep Malvi, a spokesman for the local municipal administration in Thane, where the building collapsed about 35 kilometres (20 miles) from the centre of Mumbai.
Indian media reports put the toll at 49, while police said at least seven women and fifteen children were among the dead.
Local police commissioner K.P. Raghuvanshi said his force had registered a case of causing death by negligence against developers. "There are two builders and we are looking for them," he told reporters at the scene.
Building collapses are a common occurrence in India, where a booming economy and rising real estate prices have led often unauthorised multi-storey structures to mushroom on the outskirts of cities and towns.
Many of Thursday's victims were migrant labourers who had come to Mumbai to find work on building sites, typically earning as little as two to four dollars a day. They often bring their wives and children who live on-site.
Others had already moved into homes in the block, including schoolgirl Hasina Shaikh and her family, who were living on the fifth floor.
"I had just returned from school and was changing my clothes when the building started shaking and came down on us. When I regained consciousness later, I was in the hospital," she told the DNA newspaper.
Shaikh said she did not know the whereabouts of her relatives.
Mohammed Anwar, 36, witnessed the accident while his father-in-law, a carpenter, was working inside the structure. "I saw the building collapse like a pack of cards," Anwar told the Mumbai-based paper.
The local civic administration said it was probing the incident and would check other new structures built recently in the vicinity, a middle-class commuter area with modern-style residential blocks.
"The building was built in about 16 weeks, on forest land, obviously illegally. There was no question of getting permission," Malvi from the Thane municipal corporation told AFP.
He said they had twice warned the builder that action would be taken to demolish the construction, but denied authorities had been soft on illegal buildings -- a major problem in the area.
"When action is taken against a builder, he runs away. After the illegal building is demolished, another builder will come and build there," Malvi said.
Developers routinely ignore the safety of labourers, according to V.B. Sant at the Mumbai-based National Safety Council, set up by the ministry of labour to improve worker conditions.
"Most builders just want to cut costs with inflation going up and safety of labourers just isn't a priority," Sant told AFP.
In February, the collapse of a flyover bridge being built at Mumbai's main airport killed three people and injured another seven.
In one of the worst such accidents of recent years, 69 people died and more than 80 were injured in November 2010 in New Delhi where a residential building under construction collapsed, trapping families in the lower floors.